A Breakthrough Cure for Ebola

Posted on May 31, 2010  Comments (0)

A breakthrough cure for Ebola By Steven Salzberg

Last week, in what may be the biggest medical breakthrough of its kind in years, a group of scientists published results in The Lancet describing a completely new type of anti-viral treatment that appears to cure Ebola. They report a 100% success rate, although admittedly the test group was very small, just 4 rhesus monkeys.

This is a breakthrough not only because it may give us a cure for an uncurable, incredibly nasty virus, but also because the same method might work for other viruses, and because we have woefully few effective antiviral treatments. We can treat bacterial infections with antibiotics, but for most viruses, we have either a vaccine or nothing. And a vaccine, wonderful as it is, doesn’t help you after you’re already infected.

The scientists, led by Thomas Geisbert at Boston University, used a relatively new genomics technique called RNA interference to defeat the virus. Here’s how it works.
First, a little background: the Ebola virus is made of RNA, just like the influenza virus. And just like influenza, Ebola has very few genes – only 8. One of its genes, called L protein, is responsible for copying the virus itself. Two others, called VP24 and VP35, interfere with the human immune response, making it difficult for our immune system to defeat the virus.

Geisbert and his colleagues (including scientists from Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and USAMRIID) designed and synthesized RNA sequences that would stick to these 3 genes like glue. How did they do that? We know the Ebola genome’s sequence – it was sequenced way back in 1993. And we know that RNA sticks to itself using the same rules that DNA uses. This knowledge allowed Geisbert and colleagues to design a total of 10 pieces of RNA (called “small interfering RNA” or siRNA) that they knew would stick to the 3 Ebola genes. They also took care to make sure that their sticky RNA would not stick to any human genes, which might be harmful. They packaged these RNAs for delivery by inserting them into nanoparticles that were only 81-85 nanometers across.

Related: Science Explained: RNA InterferenceAmazing Science: RetrovirusesEbola Outbreak in Uganda (Dec 2007)

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